Turn now to the affairs of Western Europe. The feebleness of the German empire continued. For over half a century it was nominally ruled by Frederick III (1440-1493), the lazy and feeble emperor who let Matthias of Hungary expel him from Vienna, and never made any vigorous effort to recover his capital. He was succeeded by his son Maximilian, a man of far other temper, full of courage, energy, and hardihood. Maximilian has been called “the last of the knights,” and indeed his whole career may well exemplify the changing times. The one achievement of his life was the recovery of Vienna from the Hungarians, and in that he was successful only because the heirs of Matthias were being overwhelmed by the Turks.
The remainder of his career was spent in learning bitterly how little real power he had as emperor. He attempted to bring the Swiss once more under the imperial dominion, but the little armies he could scrape together against them were repeatedly defeated. He was always declaring war against this kingdom or that, and summoning his great lords to aid him in upholding the glory of the empire. They persistently declined; and he was helpless. At one time having pledged his alliance to the English king, Henry VII, against France, he preserved his knightly word by going alone and serving as a volunteer in Henry’s army, whither his people would not follow him. Instead they stayed at home and demanded from him constitutions and courts of law and other internal reforms, uninteresting matters about which the gallant soul of Maximilian cared not a straw and which he gave his subjects under protest.
To the westward of him a far subtler monarch, by far subtler means, was strengthening the power of France and making smooth her way toward that supremacy over European affairs which she was later to assert. Louis XI (1461-1483) is called the first modern king, though it is little flattery to modern statecraft to compare its methods with his, and perhaps our recent governments have truly outgrown them. Louis was no warrior, although under compulsion he showed possibilities of becoming an able general. He preferred to send others who should do his fighting for him, to embroil his opponents one with another, and then reap the fruit of their mutual exhaustion. He was passed master of all falsity and craft; and by his shrewdness he brought to his country peace and prosperity. Typically does he represent his age in which intellectual ability, though sometimes wholly divorced from nobleness of soul, began to dominate brute force.
Charles the Bold stands as the representative of this brute force. He was the mightiest of the French nobles. His ancestors, a younger branch of the royal family, had been made dukes of Burgundy, and by skilful alliances and rapid changes of side through the long Hundred Years’ War, they had steadily added to their possessions and their powers. The father of Charles found himself stronger than his king, possessor not only of Burgundy, but of many other fiefs from Germany as well as France, and lord of the Netherlands as well.